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Izzy, I'm convinced that 87 percent of the available Internet bandwidth has been consumed by Andrew Bynum hairdo memes and bowling GIFs over the past week. Yeah, it's all funny, and I might have clicked on them a time or two (hundred), but they all obscure a very serious issue: Bynum and the Philadelphia 76ers are at a crossroads. Bynum's contract is up after the season, and this latest round of injuries will cost him millions of dollars in his next contract. At the same time, after the 76ers finally shipped out Andre Iguodala, they can't let the main guy they got for him just walk away, right? What a mess.
Bynum's hair might be a mess, and his future in the league cloudy, but if you look at it from the Sixers' perspective, this isn't as much of a disaster as it appears. Let's be real, the Sixers knew the risks that came with trading for the then-24-year-old with a history of knee problems. You start with knee issues that early, they're not going to magically disappear (Brandon Roy comes to mind). But Philadelphia was desperate to move on from Iguodala as its leading man. And to pick up a center with the potential of Bynum entering the last year of his contract in exchange for Iggy was ideal. If the Sixers find out immediately just how severe these knee issues are, maybe that contract extension doesn't happen. In that case, they stay in the playoff picture for a couple of years with a budding Jrue Holiday leading the way, and they become major players in the 2014 offseason with tons of salary-cap space. It's not what coach Doug Collins wants to hear, but at least the organization isn't trapped under an "immovable" Amar'e Stoudemire-like deal.
The 76ers' salary-cap situation isn't what it could be, because they also had to take on Jason Richardson's contract from Orlando in the deal. If he opts in for 2014-15, another two seasons and almost $13 million go on Philly's books. In and of itself, it's not a killer contract. But add it to Spencer Hawes' $6.5 million next season and the 76ers will pay two average players the amount they could have spent on a star. More than ever, the NBA is about allocation of resources. Neither Hawes nor Richardson is a bargain. In addition, cap space matters only if you can get the right players to fill it. Philadelphia isn't a top free-agent destination. The 76ers' last major free-agent signee was Elton Brand -- and he was damaged goods when he arrived (notice a pattern here?). Unlike Philadelphia, the Orlando Magic do have a history of signing major free agents. They landed Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, back when that was considered a big deal. That's why I don't think the latest Bynum developments make the Magic bigger winners in the Dwight Howard deal than they were when it all went down. If they dealt for Bynum and chose to part ways with him, they could have cleared that salary-cap space, with all of that Florida sunshine and lack of state taxes to sweeten the appeal to free agents. Until the Magic's pickups in the deal -- including the three first-round picks coming their way -- start winning more games than they lose, I won't love this trade for Orlando, no matter how few games Bynum plays in Philly.
Don't get me wrong, Philadelphia's top priority should be to keep Bynum, but there are two tricks to that happening, neither of them easy. First, they have to get him healthy and playing at his highest level. He needs to find out how he works with his new teammates, how Collins is going to utilize him (Bynum will probably be a lot happier with Collins than his last couple of coaches) and he needs to do it early enough in the season so he can still earn a max contract and make a wise decision about his future. Which brings us to the second tricky step: Convincing Bynum that Philly is the place where he should stay. Despite the history you pointed out, I think Philadelphia is an attractive destination. For starters, he has a young, talented lead guard in Holiday that he can grow with. But possibly more importantly, you're in an Eastern Conference with only one dominant franchise at the moment. All it takes is one Heat slip-up, injury or even (gasp!) a Heatles breakup in 2014 for the Sixers to look really good in the East. Where else would be more attractive after this season? Dallas? Cleveland? Atlanta? The Sixers might be the best permanent spot for him.
Where else is he going to go? Who would bother clearing cap space for him at this stage? The crazy thing to me is how there's absolutely zero remorse in Los Angeles for trading a 7-foot, 25-year-old All-Star. Of course it helps that it got Dwight Howard in the deal. But I'm told that one of the reasons the Lakers finally traded Bynum is they had grown tired of his immature behavior. Granted, in the grand scheme of things, Bynum is closer to Shane Battier than he is to Pacman Jones on the athlete bad-behavior scale. It's just the cumulative effect of everything from insubordination to coaches to parking his car in spaces for the disabled that exhausted their tolerance. But Bynum's time in L.A. will end up being underappreciated. People forget that before he went down in January 2008, his strong play helped tame Kobe Bryant's wanderlust. Bryant went from demanding a trade to proclaiming the Lakers a championship-caliber team with Bynum in the lineup. Bryant stayed invested in L.A., the storm passed and soon Pau Gasol was in town. People forget how Bynum gritted his way through the entire postseason to help the Lakers win the championship in 2010. And if Bynum's final act in Lakerland was facilitating a trade that brought in Howard, he left them with an extraordinary parting gift.
Oh, he'll have his suitors. If he plays a significant portion of this season, and more importantly, finishes strong and remains a free agent come July, there will be teams convinced he's worth the risk all over again. I mean, let's be honest, the Lakers have zero remorse because they got Howard. And they only "decided" they had had enough of Bynum's immaturity once they knew they could land a talent like Howard in return. The question I have with Bynum is, does he even believe he'll fully recover from these knee issues? If you read his quotes or listened to him talking about his latest setback, there was a tone of resignation. When he dropped the "if that happened bowling, what happens dunking?" line, it sounded like a man who was no longer confident in his ability to play at full strength again. Even this segment of his conversation with reporters was disconcerting: "I'm playing it day to day, which is probably the wrong thing to do in this situation. I'm waiting for the docs to kind of give me something, and they're waiting for me to tell them my knees don't hurt." He's in limbo -- and he can't even go bowling anymore to kill the time! In the end, it might be a situation like this that finally wakes up the big man and helps him take the game, and his career, a lot more seriously. There's no more humbling experience for a professional athlete than the threat of it all coming to an end much earlier than expected. If this doesn't force him to take a more businesslike approach once he gets back on the floor, I'm not sure anything will.
I think the 76ers are stuck. You don't get many chances at a franchise player, and he's their best shot at one. So sign him to a deal that's a little more per year than they want, but shorter in duration than he wants, with a team option for the last year. That's how the Lakers did it. They got an All-Star season from him ... and now he isn't their problem anymore.
The danger there would be Bynum has no real loyalty to the Sixers, so he'll fish for long-term offers elsewhere and probably get one. I see the Sixers giving him every bit of time he needs to recover, play about half the season, then bite the bullet and sign him to a five-year deal at the max -- unless they get specific, bad news about his knees. Then all bets are off.